Are Ratings Woes Making NASCAR Too Reckless?

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Joe Sebo / AP

Driver Carl Edwards (No. 99) nudges Brad Keselowski (No. 12) during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 race in Atlanta on March 7, 2010, causing Keselowski to crash. Edwards was placed on probation for three races as punishment

This week Eddie Gossage, a legendary NASCAR promoter who runs the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, was discussing two hot-button sports issues with a friend.

On March 3, Brittney Griner, the phenomenal women's basketball player from Baylor University, punched a Texas Tech player in the face during a game. She received a two-game suspension. Gossage told his pal he felt the punishment was too light.

Last weekend NASCAR driver Carl Edwards steered his 3,400-lb. stock car into the car of fellow driver Brad Keselowski. Both were going about 180 m.p.h. Earlier in the race, Keselowski had bumped Edwards, sending him to the garage; Edwards admitted he was seeking revenge. Keselowski's car flipped in the air before crashing hood-down against the ground. Somehow Keselowski walked away unscathed. And somehow, NASCAR did not suspend Edwards for the next Sprint Cup race, to take place March 21 in Bristol, Tenn. He wasn't docked any of the points that determine the season champion, or even fined. NASCAR only put him on probation. Bad boy.

Gossage felt NASCAR made the right decision. His friend was perplexed. If two games for a punch seems lenient, how can you justify no punishment for attacking an opponent with a potentially deadly race car? "The rule in basketball is, you don't get to punch another player in the face," says Gossage. "The rule in racing is that this is O.K. There are just different standards and codes and things like that." But Gossage admitted, "I understand how outrageous this appears to folks who don't follow the sport."

But it appears outrageous even to some folks inside the sport. On his Twitter account, driver Kevin Harvick (@kevinharvick) wrote: "huh! ... i'm thinkging [sic] about asking for a refund for all my penalties!!!" Former racer and current SpeedTV analyst Kyle Petty said, "That was a blatant, flagrant foul and I'm telling you, [Edwards] needs to be sitting at home and watching it on TV ... two Sundays from now." On March 9, when NASCAR announced its ruling, Petty told the New York Times, "This is one of the saddest days I've ever experienced in the sport." This is a man who knows sadness on the race track: Petty's son Adam was killed during a 2000 NASCAR practice run.

The Edwards case crystallizes the harsh dilemma facing NASCAR. After the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. during the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR officials put a premium on safety. Energy-absorbing walls were installed on the tracks, and new head-and-neck restraints were introduced for the drivers. A new car design, the so-called Car of Tomorrow, offered more protection. Some of the longer tracks mandated the use of restrictor plates, which place speed limits on cars.

Some critics have blamed these measures for making races less exciting. Drivers complained that the Car of Tomorrow limited their ability to drive aggressively. Harsher penalties for tough on-track tactics — in a motor sport in which "trading paint" used to be the norm — also contributed to more conservative driving.

Even worse, as races became more staid, ratings declined and attendance dipped — and not all of it can be attributed to the recession. In 2009 attendance fell about 10%; this year's Feb. 14 Fox broadcast of the Daytona 500 was the lowest-rated Great American Race since 1991. "You can't watch these races without seeing swaths of empty seats in the superspeedways," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

The problem is NASCAR's policing, claim some racing insiders. "They were micromanaging the sport to death," says Fox NASCAR analyst and 1989 Daytona 500 champ Darrell Waltrip. "We weren't at a crossroads — we were on the wrong road. We went from race cars to safe cars, and it was turning people off." NASCAR admitted as much, and in January the circuit announced that it was loosening its grip. "Boys, have at it," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.

So Edwards had at it. Since he was just following NASCAR's edict, how could the circuit punish him? "You know, you can't tell kids to go in the candy store and help themselves," says Waltrip, "and when they're in there, say, 'Oh my gosh, y'all took a lot more than I thought you were going to." NASCAR may regret the "have at it" declaration. "In January, I told [NASCAR president] Mike Helton, 'I love what you're doing,' " says Waltrip. " 'But I don't love that you said that. You should have let it happen on its own.' If guys got a little rough on the racetrack and NASCAR didn't do anything about it, the drivers would have figured it out. When they said, 'Have at it,' that was an invitation. When something happens like what happened Sunday, you've got no recourse."

The risk is that the soft penalty for Edwards sets the stage for a demolition derby on Sunday — a potentially lethal one. NASCAR is seeking a middle ground between safety and entertainment. "What Carl Edwards did was unacceptable," says Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's communication chief. "So what I don't want out there is the suggestion that because there wasn't a fine or a suspension, we are saying, 'This is O.K.' This is clearly not the case. Carl Edwards clearly understands where we are. And he understands what this means."

Is a compromise possible in auto racing? When high-speed machines are having at it, can you ever eliminate the risk of tragedy? That may be what it takes for NASCAR to drive out of its ratings rut.